It’s been about three months since I last wrote something Magic related. I’ve had thoughts about writing something strategy related about DKA/ISD draft and I still might but mostly I’ve been too idle to bother. However, there are only so many cooking shows a man can watch and so many podcasts a man can listen to before he gets bored and has to do something productive. I usually take a pretty dim view of Magic writers who get a little too introspective in their articles; Todd Anderson’s piece where he talks about quitting his job to play Magic and the strain it placed on his relationship is a prime example of the stuff that makes my skin crawl. However, I’m going to take an inward look at where I am in Magic and how I can get better.
I remember reading one of the parts of Conley Wood’s Worlds report last year in which he recounts receiving the following pearl of wisdom from Ben Stark: “Don’t sabotage yourself.” Conley talks about feeling a little aggrieved at the suggestion that he might do things deliberately calculated to make himself lose. However, the more I thought about it, the more I thought I might be guilty of sabotaging myself. Part of Conley’s recent success has been in realising that sometimes he needs to rein in his creative process and play the best deck. Sometime in the New Year, I came to the conclusion that although I play reasonably well most of the time, I did things that ultimately had a damaging effect on my results. If I was to ever stand a chance of winning a PTQ or similar event, I would have to honestly assess how I was doing myself a disservice and what I could do to save myself from myself.
Now, in writing this, I realise I have to tread a fine balance between writing some bullshit “Don’t do stupid shit” parable and ripping off Sam Stoddard’s “Creating a Fearless Magical Inventory”. Stoddard’s article genuinely is one of the seminal fundamental skills articles one can read. I took a lot of inspiration from it. However, my main motivation in penning this blog is self-interest. I hope people can take something from it, but at its bedrock is its place as a tool for me to improve my game. I share Stoddard’s belief that in order to improve, it is first necessary to establish what precisely is going wrong. I guess one could use the adage “the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have a problem”.
When I took poker very seriously, I would spend a great deal of time after sessions analysing hands, discussing lines with people whose opinions I respect, and taking proactive steps to improve my game. It never really occurred to me to do with Magic. Sure, I watched videos and read articles but I did so passively. It’s all well and good exposing yourself to information that will let you improve but acting upon it is another thing entirely. I now recognise that in order to genuinely move on that I had to identify where I was sabotaging myself and do something about it. I can’t claim, a short while on, that I’ve truly eradicated all of these problems but I’m aware of them and am working on it, and that is half the battle
I remember at some point in the Nationals Qualifier season I was playing MODO with Ian Bennett on Skype. I was playing Valakut and had a super marginal, and probably in retrospect, an unkeepable hand. Ian suggested I ship it back, but my response was something along the lines of “I’m Mikey Brown, who am I kidding? I never mulligan.” I keptand inevitably lost badly. Looking back, it seems pretty fucking obvious that the mind-set I had was so manifestly negligent, for want of a better word, that it should have been clear to me that what I was doing was deleterious to my chances of winning. In addition, I remember in several Scars of Mirrodin block drafts, which was a format where I had a win percentage approaching 70% over a good sample, where I would keep one landers on the draw with absolute abandon. I recall telling myself, “its fine, your deck is so much better than your opponent’s and this is a slow format, so what the hell”. Now, at the time I was never punished for it. Regardless of results though, it’s obvious to me that in the long run I was simply sabotaging myself.
My mind-set towards mulligans was just plain wrong. I had an inbred association drawn in my head between mulliganing and losing. You hear it from people all the time about how they double mulliganed, got screwed and got crushed. I remember acutely, if only because of how stupid I now realise I sounded, posing the question to Ian, “How can I win with two less cards in hand?” I came to the conclusion that my aversion to mulligans was an emotional one, based on hate and fear. I’d read enough Magic literature and watched enough coverage to know that mulliganing was such an integral skill, but I ignored its importance.
I needed a new headspace regarding mulligans. The new Mikey Brown likes mulliganing. Let those words sink in. Mikey Brown likes mulliganing. I’m working on severing that link I had erroneously created between mulliganing and losing. I am now cognisant of the fact that judicious mulligans are one of the biggest tools in my arsenal to leverage the skill advantage I believe I possess against most opponents. I’ve resolved to take the time to think properly about my mulligan decisions. I’ve taken heed of the word of Juza et al about the importance of the mulligan decision in determining the result of a game. No longer will I be a member of the Gerard Fabiano School of Mulliganing.
2) Deck Choice
At the Manchester PTQ shortly after it was announced that Jace the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic had been banned in Standard, I played “Phy Sligh” and went 0-2 drop. I had built the deck on the morning of the tournament with numbers and card choices, which in all honesty, were plucked out of my arsehole. Sure, I had talked about it with Russ, our driver, who was running something similar but it truly was an abomination and a car crash waiting to happen. I dropped from the tournament, spent a bunch of time chatting with Stelios Kargotis, Head Judge extraordinaire and made the finals of a side draft, losing to Russ, whose fate in the main event was similar to mine and went home reasonably happy all in all, despite losing. At any rate, it was constructed so it didn’t really matter as I was a limited specialist anyway.
As I’m writing this now, I’m letting that story sink into my head and it occurs to me just how divorced from good practice I was. Not only had I wasted a Saturday afternoon piloting a terrible 75 but I had actually spent the entire week with Ian and Iain Shepherd in Birmingham testing. I had come equipped with a Grixis Twin deck, kindly supplied by Mick Wright, that I had used to reasonable success in the preceding qualifiers but I discarded it in favour of the “brew”. Looking back, I’m not sure why exactly I made the choice I did. I imagine it seemed a good idea at the time. In all honesty, now I feel a good amount of shame at the disrespect I had not only shown my testing partners but the lack of respect I had shown myself. I had a deck that was well placed against the field, with several hundred games under my belt and I threw it away in favour of something that looked “cool”. In poker, the equivalent would be building up a 400BB stack only to make a random bullshit bluff shove and wind up losing it all. That behaviour is something that I would never, ever let myself do at the poker table. The poker playing Mikey Brown requires a logical reason for bets and calls and in the absence of a sound basis for them just doesn’t make them. On the other hand, the Magic playing Mikey Brown was willing to do something on a whim, cavalierly riding into battle with something untuned and doomed to failure.
I owe it to myself to do better. It would be a waste of my ability and effort to make such irrational deck choices in the future. In hindsight, it seems obvious that I ought not to cut off my own nose to spite my face. That just goes to show how manifestly absurd such behaviour is. If you accept that your goal in Magic is to win, and for me it really is just that, you need to snap out of such habits and focus on the goal. I’m not an enormously creative person but sometimes I do get ideas for decks. In fact, I’m working on something at the moment: a GWB Ramp deck for standard. I don’t want to fully constrain myself to stock lists but I do want to ensure I make reasoned decisions and can look myself in the mirror the day after a tournament and say that my deck choice, was honestly justified. I won’t use the deck in the upcoming World Magic Cup Qualifiers unless I’m certain of its credentials. Winning matches of Magic makes me happy. It seems clear to me that I shouldn’t stand in the way of my own happiness by blighting myself with shitty decks. That’s why I’m playing Jund at the PTQ this weekend. I’ve played enough games with it to really know what’s going on. It’s robust enough against the current metagame to stand me in good stead to make a much overdue top 8. I could have chosen something off the wall and wacky but, on an honest assessment of the situation, to do so would be to injure my chances, not improve them.
3) Critical evaluation. No excuses
There was a time when if I lost a game of Magic my first instinct would be to justify it in terms of how unlucky I had gotten or how lucky my opponent had been. Or perhaps, it didn’t matter because I was destined to lose anyway because my opponent was just plain better or more experienced than I was. Maybe I had mulliganed to five on the play and never recovered. In constructed, I might have been up against my deck’s only bad match-up so my plays were of no consequence. I would explain away my mistakes if someone had the audacity to question one of the lines I took. I would draw attention to another thing or just nod and take no notice. I recall Ian Bennett asking a question about a play I made, obviously with a degree of scepticism, and I straight up lied to him about not missing the crucial piece of the puzzle he had brought to my attention and I shrugged off what I saw as an attack on my play skill, that in my mind was unwarranted.
In all seriousness, how fucking conceited does a man have to be to ignore the advice made by a great friend who has your own interests at heart and shares your goal to get better at Magic? Not only was I supremely arrogant, but I was deaf to someone who was trying to help. I can still remember some time in Scars block asking Alistair Smith about his opinions on a draft pick. He replied and I flat out ignored what he said, stated my opinion and essentially posited the question in order to show my own knowledge of the format. What sort of self-aggrandising prick does that? Not only is that generally abominable behaviour, I now recognise that it is acutely damaging to one’s chances to get better.
At school, it would annoy the hell out of me when a teacher would tell me “You have two ears and one mouth, for a reason. You should listen more than you should talk.” The more mature me admits that they may have had a point. Why ask a question if you aren’t interested in the answer? Since the New Year, I’ve tried to listen to what people have to say about Magic things. I discuss draft picks with Alistair all the time. Except I always hear him out. Sure, I disagree a bunch of the time and sometimes reasonably strongly, but I listen to his opinion and it helps me form better conclusions. I know for a fact that his advice has led to me appreciating commons and strategies I had previously underrated.
Part of adopting a forthright and critical attitude towards your own skills and shortcomings is embracing variance, not as a determining factor in games, but as something operating outside of your control. It is not something that should be used to conceal the mistakes we make. Sure, in some games an inability to draw the right mix of lands and spells might be decisive to an extent but it, by itself, does not expunge you of liability for decisions you make incorrectly. I’ve fully convinced myself that it is imperative to take stock after a game and think about how it was played and whether my plays stand up to scrutiny. I won’t always be able to reach a satisfactory conclusion on the spot but I realise that there is so much to be gained from looking back at specific plays, so that in like situations in the future, I’m better placed to make the right decision. You might find me looking glum after a loss, and sure I’m probably not very chipper at that moment but I’m also wracking my mind and looking for things I did wrong. Repeating mistakes previously made and not learning from them is just a cardinal error. A few minutes of critical evaluation are ideal, before the result of the match is disregarded and you can move on to the next challenge. Rather than wallowing in your own self-pity and cursing your bad luck, identify the mistakes you made and learn from them.
I know from my experiences of playing both cricket and poker that not only do your skills atrophe if not used for a long time but that you don’t get better without you actively seeking to do so. To address faults, it’s necessary to identify them so that you know how to correct them. I’ve figured out the ways in which I have been sabotaging myself and have been working hard to find ways to overcome the obstacles I’ve placed in my own path. I will continue to do so. I don’t know for sure that I’ll be a better player now I know what I’ve been doing wrong, but I am sure, that without effort on my part, nothing would change, bad tendencies and habits would become more ingrained and I would not improve. Here’s hoping that things work out. I expect to see a marked improvement.